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Monday, December 26, 2016, 17:41

Russia: Focus is on faults, not terror, in plane crash probe

By Associated Press
Russia: Focus is on faults, not terror, in plane crash probe
This photo taken on Jan 15, 2015 shows the Tu-154 plane with registration number RA-85572, foreground, at Chkalovsky military airport near Moscow, Russia. (AP Photo/Dmitry Petrochenko)

SOCHI, Russia — A pilot error or a technical fault — not terrorism — is likely to be the cause of the plane crash into the Black Sea, Russia's transport minister said Monday as the nation held a day of mourning for the victims.

Helicopters, drones and submersibles were being used to help spot bodies and debris. Powerful spotlights allowed the operation to go on all through the night

All 84 passengers and eight crew members on the Russian military's Tu-154 plane are believed to have died Sunday morning when it crashed two minutes after taking off from the southern Russian city of Sochi. The passengers included dozens of singers in Russia's world-famous military choir, nine Russian journalists and Russian doctor known for her charity work in war zones.

More than 3,000 rescue workers on 32 ships — including over 100 divers flown in from across Russia — have been searching the crash site at sea and along the shore, the Defense Ministry said. Helicopters, drones and submersibles were being used to help spot bodies and debris. Powerful spotlights allowed the operation to go on all through the night.

Transport Minister Maxim Sokolov said in televised remarks on Monday that terrorism was not among the main theories, and that authorities were looking into a possible technical fault or a pilot error.

Still, several aviation experts noted factors that could suggest a terror attack, such as the crew's failure to report any malfunction and the fact that plane debris was scattered over a wide area.

"Possible malfunctions ... certainly wouldn't have prevented the crew from reporting them," Vitaly Andreyev, a former senior Russian air traffic controller, told RIA Novosti.

The plane was taking the Defense Ministry's choir, the Alexandrov Ensemble, to perform at a New Year's concert at Hemeimeem air base in Syria's coastal province of Latakia.

Russia: Focus is on faults, not terror, in plane crash probe
This undated combined official photo released by Russian Channel One Press Service shows the Channel One crew members, from left, Dmitrii Runkov, Vadim Denisov and Alexander Soidov. (Russian Channel One Press Service Photo via AP)

The plane originated from Moscow's military airport of Chkalovsky and stopped in Sochi for refueling before heading to Syria. Despite the Syrian connection, Sokolov said the government sees no need to heighten security measures at Russian airports.

Emergency crews on Sunday found fragments of the plane about 1.5 kilometers (1 mile) from the shore but a deputy defense minister told Russian news agencies that experts estimated the Tu-154 crash site at 6 kilometers (3.7 miles) from the shore.

Russia: Focus is on faults, not terror, in plane crash probe
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks to the media upon his arrival to attend a Session of Collective Security Council in St. Petersburg, Russia, Dec 25, 2016. (Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

By Monday morning, rescue teams had recovered 11 bodies as well as fragments of bodies. Those were flown to Moscow, where the remains will be identified.

Russian President Vladimir Putin went on television to declare Monday a nationwide day of mourning.

Some choir members did not go to Syria for personal reasons. Soloist Vadim Ananyev stayed behind to help his wife with the kids as they just had a new baby.

"I have lost my friends and colleagues, all killed, all five soloists - I feel in complete disarray," Ananyev told The Associated Press. "It is such a shame. I have known these people for 30 years. I know their wives and children. I feel terrible for the children and for all that I have lost."

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